July | August 2017


Partnership on Public Lands

by Liz Edmondson
In September 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that threats to the greater sage-grouse had been sufficiently reduced to avoid listing the bird as a protected species under the Endangered Species Act. The decision hinged on a major conservation effort involving cooperation between the federal government, state agencies, private landowners and other key stakeholders across the bird’s 11 state, 173-million acre range. According to Jerimiah Rieman, natural resources policy director to Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead, this effort was “the single largest species conservation effort undertaken in the world at any point in time.”
The greater sage-grouse is a captivating rangeland bird found in the iconic sagebrush ecosystem of the western United States. Three hundred and fifty other species, some of which are found nowhere else in the world, also inhabit the sagebrush landscape.
In 2010, due to concerns about habitat loss and lack of adequate regulatory mechanisms to address them, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that the bird was warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act. However, at the time the service needed to address higher priority listing actions and agreed to resolve the sage-grouse’s designation by Sept. 30, 2015.
A decision to list the greater sage-grouse under the Endangered Species Act could have had profound impacts on the economy. According to Rieman, a listing of the species based on its historic range would have eliminated 80 percent of natural gas production, over 60 percent of oil production and 87 percent of coal production in the state. As a result, states and other stakeholders began to coordinate to develop plans to conserve the species. Rieman noted that while states felt they were in the best position to manage the species, ultimately the looming threat of a listing determination brought stakeholders to the table with the resources necessary to address the problem.
Several factors presented challenges to this effort. Rieman said the factors contributing to the habitat loss of the greater sage-grouse were very different across the bird’s range. These included habitat fragmentation, conversion of sagebrush habitat to agriculture, human population increases, fires, energy development and invasive species such as cheatgrass. In addition, Rieman noted that another challenge was ensuring that all states engaged. Had the species been been listed, the Endangered Species Act would have had to consider the entire range of the bird, so if some states did not engage and create conservation plans, there would be no opportunity for individual states to develop solutions unique to their individual circumstances.
In other words, it was an all-or-nothing situation.
Despite these challenges, Wyoming chose to address the issue early on. Wyoming brought a team of stakeholders together in 2007, which included industry, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, the Wyoming Bureau of Land Management, wildlife groups, and others. This diverse group of federal, state and private stakeholders came together with a goal of “working together to find out how to address threats in Wyoming,” said Rieman.
This ultimately led to the issuance of an executive order in 2008 by former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal that incorporated recommendations from the stakeholder group. Current Wyoming Gov. Matthew Mead entered his own executive order in June 2011 that conserves habitat across 15 million acres, called “core areas,” while maintaining economic opportunity in the state. Under Wyoming’s plan, the vast majority of energy production in the state can continue, while more habitat is conserved.
Dustin Miller, administrator of Idaho’s Office of Species Conservation, said Idaho took a lot of cues from Wyoming in developing its plan. Similarly to Wyoming, Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter put together a diverse task force in 2011.
“Idaho wanted to be in control of how the land was managed,” said Miller. “We worked closely with local federal partners at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service.”
However, Miller noted that Idaho has experienced challenges in moving forward with its plan. Idaho worked closely with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies to develop a plan that met agency guidelines, but that was specific to Idaho. Despite working closely with federal agencies, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management added more restrictions to Idaho’s plan late in the process that Miller said were neither scientifically based nor necessary.
“As other states moved forward with their planning efforts, the (U.S. Department of the Interior) became concerned about inconsistencies and DOI’s solution was to take a top-down approach initiated by D.C., instead of working more with state and Idaho federal agencies,” said Miller.
Idaho continued to work with federal agencies to preserve the integrity of the local planning effort, but none of Idaho’s suggestions were accepted in the final plan. “The big problem was that significant changes were made behind closed doors at the 11th hour by the federal government and Idaho was not brought in as a full partner,” said Miller.
Idaho has filed a lawsuit challenging the September 2015 record of decision that finalized the 98 total land use plans that were developed through this process.
In the meantime, according to Miller, “Idaho wants to keep moving forward.”
“This is an unprecedented planning effort,” Miller said. But, “the governor’s plan is a solid plan. We need to be given the benefit of the doubt to implement state specific strategies developed by the state with state stakeholders and with buy-in and approval of the state Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and Forestry Service.”
Rieman and Miller agree that the sage-grouse conservation effort was unprecedented in the scope, cooperation and amount of habitat protected. Reiman praised the “good, honest dialogue” and the ability to work with those high up in the chain of command in the federal government as keys in creating a workable plan for Wyoming. On the other hand, Miller warned that for future efforts to be successful, the federal government must make transparency a priority. “We need to understand where the goals and objectives are up front or it will be hard to do this in Idaho again.”
Overall, the partnership between the states and federal government and other stakeholders resulted in a higher level of protection for the sage-grouse, while preserving many of the economic development activities on which states and their citizens depend. In a Sept. 22, 2015 press release, U.S Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack celebrated the historic effort.
“Together we have shown that voluntary efforts joining the resources of private landowners, federal and state agencies, and partner organizations can help drive landscape-level conservation that is good for sage-grouse, ranching operations and rural communities,” said Vilsack.